Marrying Prodigals

Much — far too much — is being made of Pope Francis’s decision to marry 20 couples today, some of whom have been, as the old saying goes, “living in sin.” Some of them have children. The Reuters story on this “event,” as reprinted in today’s Chicago Tribune, is indicative of the media hype that often accompanies any papal action which appears to signal a “relaxation” or even “repeal” of traditional Church doctrine and praxis:

Francis, who is the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, has expressed tolerance regarding other topics that are traditionally taboo in the Church, asking “who am I to judge?” a gay person “who seeks God and has good will”.

His approach contrasts with that of his predecessor, the German Pope Benedict, who said that threats to the traditional family undermined the future of humanity itself.

. . . .

The pope has said the Church must end its obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, and become more merciful, or risk collapsing “like a house of cards”.

People can argue until the cows come home how these paragraphs, in the details, misconstrues (or not) some of the Pope’s poorly formulated statements on any number of topics. The real issue with the 20 couples Francis is marrying is whether or not any of them are canonically impeded from receiving the sacrament. Based on what little information is currently available to the public, the answer appears to be, “No.” As such there should be no objection in principle to these marriages taking place. In fact, should not all Catholics of good will rejoice that these couples, who were once risking their immortal souls and, potentially, the souls of their children, have sacramentally elevated their unions? It is unbecoming, nay, grotesque for any Christian to privately or publicly wish damnation on another human being. The positive takeaway from these 20 marriages is that the Church does not shut its doors to repentant sinners and that all prodigals, no matter what their station in life, are welcome to the sacraments if they approach them worthily.

As a matter of prudence, however, there is much left to be desired about the Holy Father’s actions in this instance. As an online acquaintance of mine wrote, “[I]t is one thing for a cohabiting couple to get married at a local parish and quite another for the Pope to marry a few such couples at the first public papal wedding in years.” (The last such wedding was celebrate by John Paul II in 2000.) Why? Because as the Tribune story — and hundreds more like it — makes clear, the “message” being broadcast by this “event” is that the Church is indifferent toward what couples do prior to marriage, which is manifestly false. Any couple which cohabitants and/or has children out of wedlock have committed mortal sin and are in a state of spiritual death. That is no minor matter, and yet that is the impression being made by these ceremonies. While not all of that is Francis’s fault (or the fault of Vatican officials), has he done anything to mitigate the damage caused by the misreporting? Maybe that’s coming down the road in the near future, but there are reasons to doubt that.

For more than a year there has been a growing sense among many Catholics that the Church’s established teachings are either changing or on the verge of change because of certain questionable actions and statements by Pope Francis. While even some neo-Catholics have begun to express disappointment with certain aspects of Francis’s pontificate, many remain firm in either trying to harmonize the Pontiff’s eyebrow-raising moments or apologizing it all away. That may appear to be the charitable thing to do, but when it assists in reaping further confusion among the faithful concerning what the Church — not the individual opinion of the current pope — confesses and believes on the basis of Scripture and Tradition, there’s a problem. Neo-ultramontanism, the sort which was conspicuously absent every time Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI chose to bring the Church back to her patrimony, is running wild. “Infallibility on steroids” is the (false) order of the day. Sadly, the Church’s hierarchy is doing next-to-nothing to stamp it out.

So today, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, it would be both prudent and wise to remember that the instrument of our Lord’s torment and death is now a symbol of victory — victory over sin and death. More than this, the Cross is a beacon of hope in the present darkness. Let us pray that the light of the Cross continues to lead souls into the Church and to bring back Christ’s sheep who have been lost to the temptations of this world. Let us pray as well that the Cross remains at the forefront of the hearts and minds of the Church’s priests and bishops. May they use it as a rallying point for the faithful and a sign of hope that even in low moments, when defeat appears certain, God’s Grace ensures final victory. I can think of no message more appropriate for the universal Church at this tumultuous moment in her history.